When I was a kid, Vermont wasn’t even a blip on the college basketball scene. Today, rabid followers of the hoop ranks, know just what a Catamount is. In addition, most of the same people, have now heard of a native Vermonter by the name of Taylor Coppenrath.
The same has mostly been true of the prep basketball ranks. A high schooler or two, try Keith Cieplicki (Rice to William & Mary) and Henry Dalrymple (St. Johnsbury to Georgia Tech) played their way into national opportunities, but most players didn’t excel enough to be offered a chance back in the day.
Vermont Academy has fielded basketball teams for many years. Only once previously, a unit coached by Fred Zins in the 1960s made it to the New England Tournament, but then the Wildcats made their way back again in 2009. Then, beginning in 2012, they have gone every year since.
One hoop player with a dream prepped at Vermont Academy and has made his way to the University of Vermont basketball roster. He sees a connection between the two programs. Some of our readers, avid area hoop fans who attend games at Vermont Academy, are a part of that.
“Both of the communities are very supportive and both have caring adult fans. I knew many of the fans at VA were excited I chose to go to Vermont because they told me they were,” says Bailey Patella.
Vermont Academy Coach, Alex Popp, found Patella at an Elite 75 Showcase event. Popp felt Patella was a perfect fit for his school and his team.
“I like to recruit the guys who have potential and are kind of under the radar,” he told me. The Saxtons River coach continued, “It is also important to me to recruit families. You want good character players who know how to fit in.”
Patella spent two years at VA, growing in all aspects of his life, and his family basically made the trip with him. Vermont Academy’s Director of Alumni Engagement, Liz Olmsted, told me, “[Bailey’s] dad was our number one fan. He sat in the first row and he was the loudest.”
Funny she said that, I noticed a very vocal, positive cheering fan behind the UVM bench on Saturday, Feb. 3 in Baltimore, Md. Sure enough, it was Bailey’s dad. He recognized every Catamount for their contributions. Popp couldn’t have known this family trait when he recruited the son, could he?
The choice of the Saxtons River school wasn’t easy for Patella. He was interested in what Popp had to offer, but he was about to enter his senior year of high school and to play his final year of hoops with friends he “had spent time with since kindergarten. Even though I liked it there and knew it would help me, I decided to stay in Lenox.”
And then came the phone call. Patella recalls, “I’d been in school about a week and Coach Popp called. He said we wanted you to know we still have a room for you, if you are interested. That’s when I decided to go.”
This story is about Vermont and a love for basketball. It is a story about opportunity, and it is about organization and direction, about laying out a map for yourself.
Bailey had two stories about coming to Vermont Academy: one about his time there and one about the people he left behind. He didn’t seem eager to leave Lenox because he loved his friends and the support system. The Lenox, Mass. community had always provided for him. He appeared almost relieved that his hometown mostly understood his choice to leave.
“All my friends supported me, which was great. They said they were sad to see me go and that wasn’t easy. So many people from the town supported me and that made things easier,” the now UVM freshman said.
As for his time at Vermont Academy, he also remembers, “We played pick-up basketball the first night I was there, and everyone kind of respected my game and we immediately started bonding as a team, like a big family.”
Patella went on to say, “Coach Popp helped me work on my game and our strength coach (Local businessman and VA graduate Casey Cota) knew I needed a lot of work in his area. I had kind of been skinny all my life, and I put on 15-20 pounds quickly. He always kept an extra eye on me to make sure I kept going. That is an area we are still working on here, where they keep pushing me. I drink a lot of protein shakes and try to have three or four plates at a meal.”
Popp read Patella well. “I remember he said when I met him, that he wanted to get me on campus. Once I came to Vermont, I saw how nice it was right away. I like Burlington the same way. I had hardly been to Vermont before I went to Vermont Academy. I learned quickly to love the surroundings. I loved the trails we had on campus. Overall, it was just a beautiful place. If you get stressed, you can just take a walk out in the fresh air.”
It is easy to tell Patella is an appreciative kid. He looks at the experience now and says, “Making the move to Vermont Academy not only made me a stronger basketball player, but helped me improve my grades, which was another big thing and just helped me grow as a person, in all aspects of my life.”
Popp says, “UVM knew they wanted Bailey and that he was a fit. They were persistent in recruiting him. Hamlet Tibbs (UVM assistant) is someone who can earn your trust and they did a great job recruiting him. They recognized his length and athleticism and how he could help their program.”
Joining a Division I program that had dreams of their own, of competing in another NCAA Tournament was exciting, but it in turn, fogged up Patella’s dreams again. Head Coach John Becker decided it would be best to redshirt both Patella and another talented teammate for a year, in hopes of making the program stronger down the road. It would also give Patella time to grow in many aspects.
Bailey said Becker told him, “I think in your fifth year, you can be an all-league type player.” Becker told Patella about standout Kurt Steidl, who was a major contributor on last year’s team as a senior, but Becker wished he had been able to redshirt Steidl back when he was a freshman, so he would have been able to contribute this year. Patella would be Becker’s Steidl down the road.
Unfortunately injuries happen, and Patella is no longer a redshirt. The freshman admitted, “This has made it kind of an up-and-down year,” but because he is the person he is, he quickly transferred his thoughts to allow only the positive.
“I know I have to be patient. The big thing with me right now is practice. I know I have to become more consistent in practice and keep practicing hard in hopes of being ready to earn more minutes,” Patella says.
How does Coach Becker look at Patella? He responded to that question by going back to what he saw while recruiting him. The successful Catamount coach said, “I liked his competitive spirit. He has high major athleticism and long arms. He will be a really good player for us, once he fills out and improves his skill set.”
In closing, this is a story in progress, of one young man who many local sports fans saw play at Vermont Academy and share their hopes for his success. One thing appears sure though. Patella understands the value of his surroundings, including those who support him. Chances are, regardless of if he becomes an all-league player, he has shown he has the tools, including patience and work ethic, to be successful wherever his skills take him.